Working Retail vs. Food Service

This year I decided to take on a part-time job during the weekends throughout the holidays to make some extra cash (because weddings, no matter how much you try not to spend a lot of money and make everything yourself are freakin' expensive). Back when I was an unpaid intern at the American Museum of Natural History, the archivist told me as I was taking on tons of debt to basically hope to be like her one day, that it would be a long while until I made a lot of money. Of course, it is also really satisfying work, and I knew what I was getting into. One main reason that I went to graduate school was so that I didn't have to be a waitress anymore. So when I came up with the idea of working weekends during the holidays, I really didn't want to go back to that.

So I showed up at a craft store, let's call it Mary Jo's Crafts, which is next to Emperor's Wine and Spirits. To their credit they hired me, since most places like that see that you have a Master's degree and think you will leave. Of course you won't stay there, but who stays there anyway? Shouldn't you have a chance to make some extra cash despite being an educated person? At the interview I talked about how much I loved crafts, how much I made every last detail for my wedding, and how much I loved talking to people about crafts. I was sure to make new friends who loved crafts projects. It was going to be great (or not horrible - or at least get me some extra cash).

So it turned out my moderate expectations were too high. I don't even like going to that shopping plaza on a weekend not during the holiday season, why would I think it would be an ok experience to work there? Of course it was ridiculously busy. I can at least report that they follow New York State labor laws when it comes to breaks, and letting people leave when they think they are going to leave (this is more than I can say about any food service job I ever had in New York City). There were a few problems like their computers never worked. The thing with technology is that if it doesn't work you are more helpless than if you weren't trying to use it to begin with. They don't have any database for cashiers, so if some random pinecone with glitter on it has no price tag you have to stop waiting on a mile long line, go look for a glittery pinecone somewhere in the store and scan that. If you cannot find any glittery pinecone, well they tell you to find something that looks like the same price and scan that. Would it be impossible for them to have a database on the computer where the cashier could look it up? Would it be impossible to make it so the cashier could call up someone in the floral department who would know where one is? Yes, that would be impossible because there is no one working in the floral department. In fact, there is barely anyone on the floor in any department. They give seasonal people really no training at all, so when you walk through the store to use the bathroom and 10 million people want to know where clothing line twine, battery operated fake candles, appliqu├ęs, make your own puzzles are - you have no freakin' clue. Anything I knew where it was located was only because I found it as a customer when I was planning my wedding. There is no one to ask, and there is no reason an untrained seasonal employee would have any idea.

Then there are the coupons. There are people who would rather have 30 items rang up separately so that they can save 10% off of $2.00 than take less than 20 minutes to have their order rang up. These coupons got so ridiculous that I thought "If you cannot afford this otherwise perhaps you should have just stayed home!". Crafting is a hobby, right? It is not a vital life expense. Also - Christmas decorations are not a vital life expense. The person arguing with you until they are blue in their face about how they should get 40% off of a tube of penguin wrapping paper that is already 50%  off is just enough to make you hate Christmas all together. The other weird thing about it was that almost no one who worked there ever introduced themselves to me. I'd go in, wait on millions of customers who complain about the prices, can't believe they have to wait,  best case scenario give I'd at least get some entertaining anecdote about some customer's granddaughter's birthday party, I'd leave, and almost no one remembered I had even worked there. In fact, the day I went in to pick up my last pay check, the girl who was at the service desk didn't realize I worked there (even though I had seen her probably 20 times), and certainly didn't know my name. My gain for giving up most weekends in the fall I probably would have otherwise spent making bread or something: $882. That is $882 I would have not had made otherwise, so of course it was a gain. I also got 20% off of the fondant and supplies for this project, so that was a bonus. 

I guess working 7 days a week made me appreciate the notion of hard work. So many people have it so easy and do not appreciate it. Also, there is something weird about the world where my  pleasant, rewarding, and interesting employment pays double something that was awful, exhausting, and sometimes  demoralizing.

It made me appreciate certain aspects of food service. I worked in food- related jobs from the ages 14 to 26. The longest job I ever held in my life still was four and a half years at a Blimpie. I do not think I could have lasted that many years in a retail situation (three months was enough). And in fact, even since having a professional job I enjoy, there are aspects of food service I feel nostalgic about. You actually meet people in food service, on both sides of the counter. I got a husband out of it. I worked at a Starbucks for a few weeks when we first moved here, and I at least met a handful of interesting people. People talk around food and coffee. In a large retail store, you are really a cog in a machine, and not even an efficiently running one. There is something about food the brings people together. Sure, restaurant work is dirtier and sexual harassment seems to run rampant. I think back on eating lunch for free every day of my undergrad career,  all the people I met, actually enjoying the work, and I think that it did improve my college experience. Perhaps there are enjoyable retail experiences out there - but this was not it.

Most of all the experience made me appreciate having other skills and a Master's degree. Sure, I will be paying off student loans for 25 years, but at least I am doing something I like. There will always be a tiny part of me though that misses food service. In fact, weirdly enough when I think of my own retirement I imagine working at a coffee shop or bakery or something. I still believe that there is something honorable in bringing people their food. Retail on the other hand, is probably something I will never try out again.


  1. I attempted retail once myself. Never again. I'd rather serve 6 different meals, with a minimum of 3 modifications from the menu prep each, to a table of 6 women who want separate checks, than ever revisit that brief bit of career opportunity exploration. No friggin' way.

  2. haha I agree! Never know til you try I guess.


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